Liv­ing over the Dain­tree River has never been easy, but when Gill and Mick Sav­age bought their place on For­est Creek Road in 1987 it was even more chal­leng­ing, as she ex­plained to Pam Wil­lis Bur­den

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

There were quite a few dead cows in lit­tle run-offs with their feet up in the air. They went way out to sea, and some ended up at Lizard Is­land. The crocs would have had a good feed

Gill Sav­age

It was a dra­matic change from Not­ting­ham, Eng­land, where Mick Sav­age had been a roof tiler. They mi­grated as Ten Pound Poms in 1970 with seven and six year old daugh­ters and twins aged five .

Once the fam­ily had grown up and left home, Gill and Mick bought seven acres on a creek and moved up from Cairns.

Gill loved it. “We ran away to peace and quiet”, she said. The ferry stopped at 6pm, they didn’t have mains power or town wa­ter and her shower was at­tached to the tank out­side.

Grad­u­ally they im­proved the place, built a kit home and put a wood stove on the ve­ran­dah, which kept the mois­ture down in the house and was great for cook­ing soup and piz­zas.

Al­most ev­ery night they’d have 10 to 15 inches of rain, and only Septem­ber was dry.

“There were wa­ter­falls ev­ery­where. It was lovely to ex­pe­ri­ence all this wet.” Gill said.

At first, they had a so­lar bat­tery sys­tem for power “but there was not much sun. So rather than use power on the TV, I’d have three glasses of wine and lis­ten to the birds and the creek.”

Then they put a wa­ter tur­bine in the creek to run 5 amps an hour of power. It was bet­ter than so­lar.

Mick was of­ten away work­ing, and Gill grew trop­i­cal fruits like ly­chees, pineap­ples, pas­sion­fruit, candy red wa­ter­mel­ons and paw­paw.

When the Cow Bay pub first opened she took in six wa­ter­mel­ons, hop­ing to sell one. The girl said ‘They’re re­ally big cu­cum­bers’, but the pub­li­can bought them all for Christ­mas.

She didn’t make a liv­ing from her fruit. “It was just a hobby to keep me busy and it was a lot of work, rak­ing and mow­ing the 5 acre pad­dock. I’m very glad I’m not there now.”

The tourism in­dus­try re­ally took off for Dain­tree in 1988, and Gill was asked to work at the Big Croc Café be­side the ferry cross­ing. She’d start at 7am, mak­ing muffins for morn­ing tea for the tour buses and sal­ads for their BBQ lunch at Cape Tribu­la­tion.

In March 1996 there was a huge flood.

It had been a dry wet sea­son, which was un­usual for Dain­tree. The wind from the north blew things off the ta­bles at the café and there was a green sky be­hind Thorn­tons Peak.

It rained that night “but you were so used to hear­ing rain, when it stopped you’d think you’d gone deaf”.

And the next day it rained. 13 inches of rain was in the gauge and it kept fill­ing.

The Dain­tree River was so high, her neigh­bour Mary Har­low said she could only just see the top of the roof of the café.

Mar­garet Pat­ter­son lived right on the river but left it too late to leave, so she got in a lit­tle boat and went from tree­top to tree­top, hang­ing on.

Mick Har­low res­cued peo­ple from their roof near the high­way at 10 o’clock at night. The bi­tu­men washed off the road into the pad­dock.

“Dur­ing the flood­ing, the power was still on at the café be­cause the power box was high up and the wa­ter hadn’t reached it.

“One young chap, Martin, flicked it off from his boat.

“The freez­ers were still work­ing so he took the lids off and tipped all the food into the river be­fore it could rot.”

He saw the huge fat gas bot­tle in the cor­ner twist­ing round and round in the cur­rent, so he let that go, and it wasn’t un­til af­ter that he thought about crocs. But he said it would have been too busy try­ing to steer it­self to bother about him, and it had ‘chicken wrapped in plas­tic with­out feathers’ from the freez­ers to eat.“

It took over a week for the wa­ter to go down, then Dean Clapp who ran the café took ev­ery­body over the river to see what was hap­pen­ing and to get the ferry go­ing again.

“We saw the ferry was up on the bank, stuck on a py­lon.”

The strong cur­rent had bro­ken the ferry ca­bles on the north­ern side and it swung from its ca­bles on the south­ern side.

The Big Croc Cafe had a moat of river sand around it. The men shov­elled the sand un­der the ferry to re­float it.

There was very smelly mud be­hind the plas­ter­board walls of the café. The freezer was in the trees.

“The area was closed for three weeks but we had never been as busy with the num­ber of peo­ple that came up to see what was hap­pen­ing. Of course they all wanted some­thing to eat, but the café hadn’t re­stocked yet. We gave away the screw top drinks which had mud in the tops.”

Wal­ter Starke, a doc­u­men­tary maker and marine bi­ol­o­gist, had wa­ter come into his lit­tle air-con shed where he stored his films. “It ru­ined his life’s work. He had 12 ft of wa­ter un­der his house at the very end of For­est Creek Road. They never went back there and Wal­ter went ec­cen­tric af­ter that.”

Mirac­u­lously no­body drowned and the phone stayed on.

“There were quite a few dead cows in lit­tle run-offs with their feet up in the air. They went way out to sea, and some ended up at Lizard Is­land. The crocs would have had a good feed.”

The but­ter­fly farm was flooded. Dean Clapp had just re­stocked with but­ter­flies and birds. He had to slit the top of the shade cloth so they could all es­cape and he never re­opened his busi­ness, which was on the river’s edge op­po­site the Tea House.

At the Dain­tree Eco Lodge, guests were scream­ing. “Is it sup­posed to be wet when you put your foot out of bed?” Gill re­mem­bers “The guests made their way down to restau­rant but when the doors were opened, a ter­ri­fied pig came in, run­ning through on the tim­ber floor.”

The Big Croc Café fi­nally re­opened af­ter about 8 weeks. It had been rewired, and the walls cleared of mud.

The café had been built on Crown land by Bil­lie Lloyd, and at first was called the Trad­ing Post, leased from Dou­glas Shire Coun­cil. Bil­lie also owned the Croc­o­dile Ex­press tourist boat. In 1986/87 Dean Clapp leased the café from Bil­lie and re­named it the Big Croc.

When the Coun­cil lease ran out, they wouldn’t re­new it, so the café closed at the end of 2000.

The build­ing was re­moved and is now in Di­neen Close, Cooya Beach.

When the café was ac­tive, there was a walk­way on Crown land that went east on the river­bank, so if tourists didn’t want to cross the river, they could still see man­groves and beau­ti­ful big trees. “We didn’t

have a for­ward-think­ing coun­cil then. We should do these things for tourists” says Gill.

About 40 peo­ple lived around For­est Creek in those days. Joe and Sandy Re­ichel grew he­li­co­nias to sell as cut flow­ers. They would take them to Cairns air­port to be sent all over Aus­tralia.

Rod Kennedy grew rambu­tans and sent them to mar­kets in Ja­pan.

Gill’s rambu­tans went to Ja­pan for Chi­nese New Year “but it got harder and harder to keep the lori­keets off. They were drunk from the fruit, worse than cock­a­toos and fly­ing foxes. When you were pick­ing, they were on your head, on your shoul­ders, pick­ing your ears.”

Some neigh­bours worked on Tony Re­ichart’s ba­nana farm which em­ployed about 25 peo­ple plus a few back­pack­ers. It closed a few years ago and the fam­ily went to Eng­land.

She wished she’d planted her 5 acre pad­dock with reveg­e­ta­tion rather than fruit, es­pe­cially for the stripy pos­sum. Its long striped tail is twice as long as its body and it looks like a furry snake. It comes out on full moon and sounds like two fly­ing foxes fight­ing.

“I’d sneak out there in the moon­light with my torch over the other side of the pad­dock to see them.

I’d lived up there 15 years be­fore I saw a cas­sowary. It was in the neigh­bour’s place and she’d throw rot­ten food out the back be­cause they were a bit hun­gry in the dry.”

Gill was fright­ened by pigs and would never walk along the creek on her own. She heard that if they knock you over, they’ll eat you. “They dug up all my sweet pota­toes. It was like a D9 bull­dozer had been through it. They’re a big, big prob­lem in the rain­for­est.“

“It was very nice liv­ing over there, it was an ex­pe­ri­ence you wouldn’t swap.

“Just to do with­out things and ap­pre­ci­ate what you have. In­stead of hav­ing the TV and the ad­verts on, I’d lis­ten to the rain and the birds.

“When you see a truck with a bull­dozer you fol­low it. You get re­ally posses­sive of your rain­for­est; you see peo­ple who just want to chop it down.”

Gill said “The con­tentious is­sue with power over the River wasn’t about not let­ting peo­ple have power, it was about de­vel­op­ment, so that they could get struc­tures in place to keep what they had be­fore they did the power. I don’t think power could ever come, be­cause you’ve got roads ev­ery­where with some­times only two peo­ple on them. How are you go­ing to give them power at a rea­son­able cost?”

Af­ter Mick passed away, Gill left the Dain­tree in 2012 and moved to Cooya Beach. “I never locked my doors. I didn’t know where the key was when I sold the place.”

Three of her four chil­dren live lo­cally, Deb­bie (Milla Milla), and twins Ma­ree (Ma­reeba) and Vin­cent (Cairns and Weipa). Donna lives in Tas­ma­nia. “They’re so close in age, for three weeks in the year I’ve got three kids the same age.”

She couldn’t go back to Eng­land. She wouldn’t like to be cold. “If you can’t sit on your veranda at 2 o’clock in the morn­ing in your nightie, I don’t want to be there. When you live some­where as beau­ti­ful as this, it’s hard to leave. I’ve been up here since 1975. It’s home.”

Above: The ferry stuck on a bank af­ter the lood of 1996. Top left: Dain­tree lo­cal Gill Sav­age. Main: The Big Croc Cafe dur­ing the flood. Top right: Mick and Gill. Bot­tom

right: Re­pairs un­der­way to the road af­ter the flood.

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